Fidel Castro, who died last Friday at the age of 90, was one of those iconic characters whose place in history will be a subject of debate for a long time to come. He was a dictator, but also a revolutionary and reformer who had inspired millions all over the world at a time when imperialism and voracious capitalism were seen as a cancer eating up resource-rich but impoverished countries in South America, Africa and South East Asia. Fidel was a vintage product of a bloody struggle between Communism and capitalism in a post-Second World War global theatre.
He was the last archetypal guerrilla fighter driven by deep ideological anti-colonial conviction and the romantic dream of building a socialist utopia. He had risen against a United States-backed dictator to free Cuba from the yoke of American usurpation. His comrade-in-arms, the charismatic Argentinean doctor Che Guevara, remains a symbol of people’s struggle against imperialism, tyranny and injustice. Their historic partnership made the Cuban revolution a standard for other nations seeking freedom — from Palestine to Vietnam, from Angola to Nicaragua.
Castro’s apotheosis as a Cold War figure came by accident as the US demonised him and sought to topple him, especially following the failed CIA-led operation known as Bay of Pigs in 1961. It is said that he had survived no less than 600 assassination attempts. He became the centre of a US-Russian showdown in the 13-day Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. For decades, Castro remained a gadfly to a handful of US presidents. Under US economic embargo, Cuba became increasingly reliant on Soviet aid and support and for a while Castro was able to follow through on a number of reforms. Against all odds, he was able to implement an outstanding education and health system. Recent figures show that infant mortality in Cuba has fallen to 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6.0 for the US and just behind Canada at 4.80. Its universal health system is ranked 39th, out of 191, by the World Health Organisation, ahead of many western and oil-rich countries.
And according to the World Bank, no country, including the richest, spend such a high portion of its national budget, roughly 13 per cent, on education as Cuba. It is worth noting that a country of 11 million people has 47 universities — a number of which enjoy international reputation.
Under Castro, Cuba’s education and health models were transferred to a number of countries in South America and Africa. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba’s economic fortunes quickly dissipated. Castro’s social experiment was on the brink of collapse. Popular dissent forced him to hold tight to power and yes he did imprison thousands of political opponents. Castro’s defiance and trademark arrogance never wavered and he was lucky to find an ally and protege in the form of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who for many years subsidised the Cuban economy.
In a post-Cold War world, Castro and his Cuban revolution ceased to be a threat to the US. But he remained a controversial figure to the rest of the world. Leftist western politicians admired him and he was invited to the Vatican and a number of European capitals. But he had become a symbol of a bygone era. The world was changing and so was Cuba. Revolutionary ideas had no place in today’s globalised world. Even South America was quickly shifting; peacefully adopting free-market capitalist systems. Those that did not, like Venezuela, soon verged on becoming failed states.
Despite the turbulent history with the US, Castro was not dogmatic about future relations with his northern neighbour. He lived to see the historic visit by US President Barack Obama to Havana earlier this year and the hoisting of the American flag on the embassy. He developed a special friendship with former US president Jimmy Carter and shook hands with former US president Bill Clinton at a United Nations meeting in 2000. Castro believed deeply that it was the US that had to apologise for what it did to Cuba and that the two countries could coexist peacefully.
Change had come to Cuba even before Castro’s death. His brother Raul, who took over in 2008, had embarked on an ambitious but slow economic reform in the hope of attracting foreign investments. Obama’s overture to Cuba will undoubtedly open the island for US investments and loosen the totalitarian system of government that Havana had followed under Fidel for decades.
It is ironic that Castro’s departure comes at a time when the Left is on the retreat in almost every country on earth, as we see far-right populist movements gaining ground in Europe and in the US — the latter with Donald Trump’s stunning victory. As the last iconic figure of the era of the Cold War departs, the 20th century has truly and finally come to a close!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.